A diverting Western that’s almost worth seeing for the unsaddled performances that director Vincent D’Onofrio gets from his cast, “The Kid” only makes a few small adjustments to the dustiest of American genres, but these errant wrinkles — a far cry from any serious revisionism — provide much of the fun. The film’s tepid pulse can be felt in the way that Sheriff Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke) frantically warns the townsfolk that he’s about to start a gunfight with some cowboys. Or in the deference that young Billy the Kid (a dirty-faced Dane DeHaan) shows a lawman whom he truly does not want to kill. It’s a shame that D’Onofrio’s unremarkable oater tends to shoot pretty straight, because it spurs to life in the rare moments when it squints a bit and breaks with tradition. For a story about a tug-of-war between valor and rebellion, a little more tension between old tropes and new twists would have gone a long way.
“The Kid” doesn’t start with the one you think; this isn’t a biopic about a famous outlaw, or the man who gunned him down. It’s a coming-of-age story about a fictional young boy who gets caught between them, and the film’s double entendre of a title puts the drama square on his tiny shoulders. Potentially the latest in a long line of rotten men, Rio (Jake Schur, believable even in some rather unbelievable scenes) could still go either way. Is he going to be a drunken lout like his dad? Is there any chance Rio will be able to assume a measure of the grace he sees in the women around him? It’s too soon to tell — even if Schur’s innocent face kind of gives the game away — and a messy prologue in which Rio murders his awful father and runs away with his older sister, Sara (Leila George), sends his moral compass spinning.
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That’s when Rio and Sara manage to Forrest Gump their way into the middle of a standoff between Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. And right from the start, Andrew Lanham’s script refuses to pick sides; the scruffy outlaw has a twinkle in his eyes and a soft spot in his heart (he insists that the stories about him are mostly lies, but that he’s “done enough”), while the lawman has a checkered past of his own.
Both of them, however, are saints compared to Rio’s uncle, Grant (Chris Pratt, bearded and desperately trying to earn back some of his cred), whose own violent upbringing has twisted him into a speechifying cartoon monster. Grant abducts Sara with plans to “whore her out” south of the border, leaving Rio to figure out which of his new adult role models — Billy the Kid or Pat Garrett — he should enlist for his rescue posse.
And so “The Kid” is primed for a phantom custody battle of sorts, as its impressionable young hero is forced to choose between two legendary figures of the Wild West, and the respective paths they each represent. “I need you to picture who you’re gonna be when all this is over,” Sara tells Rio before the actions begins, and the boy takes those words to heart. He’s constantly evaluating his options, planting seeds that the film neglects to water.
“You really think I’m like you?” Rio asks Billy, his voice tinged with aspiration and uncertainty. When he’s introduced to Garrett a few minutes later, his eyes seem drawn to the fact that they have the same haircut. D’Onofrio’s direction is more sturdy than subtle, but he knows how to play an effective grace note (the famed actor, who appears on screen in a small role that hems in his usual eccentricity, previously directed a 2010 horror film called “Don’t Go into the Woods”).
And yet despite such a rich premise, “The Kid” often struggles to find its footing. A first act that centers Rio as the emotional core of the story is followed by a second act that loses him in the background, as his two prospective stepdads steal away D’Onofrio’s attention. It’s easy to appreciate why they pull focus — Hawke is always compelling as a man trying to keep the darkness at bay, and DeHaan subverts expectations by playing Billy the Kid with the smirk of a Marvel superhero who got stuck on the wrong side of history — but this story never belongs to them. Once Rio fades away, the movie never manages to find him again.
The boy’s fluctuating allegiances are hard to track, and his maturation grows harder to care about. Rio starts to seem younger in every scene, less and less equipped to know the score. When Billy the Kid punctuates a tense moment by claiming that Rio is “his only friend in the whole God-damned universe,” it’s impossible to know if he’s being sincere — not because the character is layered and ambiguous, but rather because his relationship with Rio is too sketchy to support an answer.
By the time Grant reappears in the final third, spouting a faux-crazy monologue about blue jays that’s meant to double as an expression of cyclical male toxicity, it feels as if he just rode in from an entirely different movie. And as the drama begins to crumble, the film’s aesthetic poverty becomes more of a problem. Everything starts to seem perfunctory. And a tragedy about how violence forces kids to grow up too soon withers into a routine story about a child who’s only able to eke out a measure of goodness when he has a gun in his hands.
Lionsgate will release “The Kid” in theaters on March 8.